- 1291 After Mithras, Mithras’ heavenly realm.
Death sucked. Not as much as she thought, though.
Kia had never been religious, and so, she expected a dark void and then nothing. Apparently though, religions were onto something.
The afterlife existed, and it looked like a greek temple made of marble, golden clouds and shining light. Whichever god ruled this place had given her a comfortable chair on which to sit, in front of a bright pyre.
She raised her eyes, finding that what she thought to be pillars were in fact the legs of two immense figures.
The first was a great man with marble-like skin, like a statue chiseled from the stone. The entity wore a crown of flames and carried a blazing sword, hidden below a royal mantle. It was the archetypal king, with two suns for eyes glancing down at Kia with kind benevolence. “I am Mithras, god of the sun, law, healing, and justice,” he presented himself with a warm, booming voice.
“And I am Leone, goddess of glory, nobility, art, and strength.” The second was a true knight in shining armor, a woman with blonde hair, glowing blue eyes, and clad in golden armor. She carried a great sword anchored in the ground with both hands on the pommel, and radiated an aura of bravery. “We are two of the twelve gods of Outremonde.”
“A coin has two faces, Kia,” Mithras said. “Earth is but one world among many, and it has a twin. Outremonde. A world similar to yours in shape, but with dragons instead of planes, magic instead of science. A world threatened by a great blight, and in dire need of heroes.”
“You died an early death on Earth before you could fulfill your destiny,” Leone continued, Kia wondering if they were married or very close friends to synchronize so well. “But death is a door. It can lead you to whatever afterlife awaits, or to a new chance in Outremonde.”
“Like reincarnation?” Like the novels she read online?
“If you wish,” Mithras explained her options. “We can return you to Outremonde as you are now, with all that you carry. Or we can reincarnate you into the body of a man, an elf, a dwarf, or even a cat. As long as it is neither a fomor nor a dragon, you can become anything, or anyone.”
“That’s… oddly specific,” Kia pointed out.
“Fomors have no soul and thus you cannot incarnate as one. Dragons...” Leone made a face of absolute disgust, before regaining her composure. “Dragons are forbidden. You will be granted divine blessings, and great boons, so you may forge yourself a new destiny. But great power comes with a certain obligation.”
Of course, there would be a catch. Kia hadn’t done anything extraordinary in life. She moved from Ethiopia to Europe with her parents, only to die a school student when her stupid boyfriend drove their car into another. Beyond some charity work in her free time, she had nothing heroic to present. “You have a mission for me.”
Leone nodded. “The people of Outremonde are threatened by an ancient foe, the fairy lords of the fomor.”
“They are not the little fairies of your movies. The fomors are soulless abominations, wicked witches, eaters of children, and cruel giants. They treat humans as toys or food, and create life only to enslave it. They uplifted the beastkin by giving animals the gift of intelligence, only to hunt them for sport. They are foul tyrants who once ruled Outremonde with an iron fist alongside their dragon rivals, before our fellow deity Dice came along.”
“Through our support and the power of Classes, humans and other species have slowly pushed them back in the dark corner of Outremonde. But almost a century ago, one of them decided to fight back.”
Mithras raise a hand, and miniature phantom pictures appeared in front of Kia, like holograms.
The scene represented a medieval city inhabited by humans and assaulted by monsters. Trolls, ogres, winged harpies and other horrors had breached fortified walls, setting the city on fire while fighting a collapsing defense of knights and magicians. It would have looked awesome if the battle wasn’t horribly one-sided in the horde’s favor.
A monstrous rider the size of skyscrapers rampaged around the city, crushing houses with every step. The creature, a humanoid, rode a giant lizard with spikes on its back as if it was a horse.
Was that a D&D tarrasque? Or Godzilla? And something was riding it?
The giant riding it looked like a monstrous, headless knight, carrying an enormous axe of flesh and bone with one hand. A floating eye of blue flames hovered where the head should have been, glaring down with malice at the small people the monster cut mercilessly.
“King Balaur, strongest and foulest of the fomors, has raised a terrible army and wages war against the Mistral continent,” Mithras explained with a grim voice. “Countries have fallen to him, and now Gardemagne, the stronghold of mankind, is threatened with destruction. If he succeeds, Balaur will soak the continent with the blood of all mortals, so they may never rise again to challenge the fomors.”
“Why do you not help the mortals directly?” It always bugged her why deities never seem to do so in stories, and that creature seemed like a threat big enough to warrant it. “That thing looks nasty.”
“We would like to, and once I did,” Mithras said, surprising her. “But we are not all-powerful. We are closer to your Olympians, or your Aesir. We are powerful and we cannot die, but we have our limits.”
“A millennia ago, we gods agreed not to fight on Outremonde itself,” Leone said. “For when we did, we caused more harm than good, with no clear winner. Another god, Sablar the World Eater, supports the fomors in his quest for universal decimation, and thus prevents us from intervening. So for now, all we can do is guide and empower mortals. We can reincarnate people from Earth, by ‘claiming’ their souls, and making them our champions.”
“So, if I agree to fight this Balaur, I will be granted a new life and amazing powers?”
“This will be a dangerous journey, and you may very well die,” Mithras said. “But know that if you die in the line of duty, you will be granted a place in our divine realm. Neither will you be alone.”
“We reincarnated many other humans from your world, who had the potential to become true heroes,” Leone confirmed Kia’s own thoughts, “Together, you will form a great crusade and fight as one against Balaur.”
They were bribing her with heaven?
Now that she knew it existed, how could she resist?
“Can I get a better body?” she asked, a bit embarrassed. Kia was black, with a nerdy look and glasses; the kind of girl who spent their time in the library without seeing the light of day. She had always had some sort of body issue over it, and so seized the chance. “I want to stay human and close to what am I, just… better-looking.”
“That can be arranged,” Leone said, who didn’t sound surprised.
“Yes. I don’t want too much change, just to be in better health, not need glasses, and have a beautiful face. I know that sounds stupid, but...”
“This is not stupid, Kia,” Mithras reassured her with kindness, “In fact, you are more mature and humble than the others.”
“Ah? How so?”
“Most of them ask for bigger... implements... and I shall not sully myself by giving lurid details.”
“You can get a bigger chest? Is that on the table?”
The gods’ stare became cold and unbearable.
“I was kidding,” Kia said, who wasn’t sure herself. The offer was good, and she was in no hurry to find whatever ‘normal’ afterlife awaited her. “I’m in.”
“Thank you, Kia,” said Mithras. “Shall we, Leone?”
“Beforehand, though, can I ask you a question?” The gods nodded at Kia’s demand. “Why me, among all the others? What made me special?”
The deities exchanged a glance in uncomfortable silence. After long, agonizing seconds, Kia grew very nervous.
“I do not have the heart to tell her,” Leone told Mithras.
The god sighed in response, glancing down at Kia. “Kia. I am the god of justice. Truth and honesty are under my purview, which means I am physically unable to lie, no matter how much I would like to spare someone's feelings. My words will be the objective truth, so please, do not take anything I say personally.”
Kia prepared herself for impact.
“You are bland, and forgettable.”
Kia sank deeper in her chair.
“You were largely irrelevant in your previous life, and while you died with good karma, it was more because of an absence of evil deeds than any worthwhile quality. You are, for a lack of a better word, mediocre, but passable.”
Never before did Kia thought words could hurt so much.
“We have already reincarnated all the people whom you could call true hero material, but the fomors either killed them, or they are not enough on their own. We are, to use your local expressions, scraping the bottom of the barrel, and accepting anyone with remotely good karma. We hope that where quality failed, quantity will succeed. The situation is that terrible. Even if we do not expect it, you have the potential, with some boons and luck, to become a hero. It is unlikely but possible.”
By now, Kia’s self-esteem had been torn to shreds, and she couldn’t find her words.
“But no pressure,” Leone tried to reassure her, with a forced smile.
No, not at all.
"You can still become a hero, and seize the chance to grow into a legend," Mithras said, kinder than before. "Even if you fail, I will welcome you in my realm, where you could enjoy a bountiful afterlife. The choice is yours."
She liked the idea a lot less than before, but it was still better than the alternative.
Both deities raised a hand at her, and two symbols materialized on the back of each of Kia’s palm as tattoos: a shining, golden sun, and a shield with a stylized pen symbol.
Congratulations! You were granted a level in the prestigious [Paladin] Class!
+1 STR, +1 VIT, +1 CHA, +1 LCK!
You earned the [Holy Champion] Class Perk, and the [Claimed by Mithras] and [Claimed by Leone] Personal Perks!
[Holy Champion]: You gain advanced proficiency with Swords and Spears, all attacks you make with any weapon will inflict additional Holy Damage.
[Claimed by Mithras]: When you level up, you have an additional 10 percent chance to gain a Charisma or Strength point. You are also immune to all Fire and Holy effects, except those caused by Mithras or his servants.
[Claimed by Leone]: When you level up, you have an additional 10 percent chance to gain a Vitality or Skill point. You gain a 30 percent experience bonus whenever you finish a quest or slay a monster.
Mediocre and passable?
Kia promised herself that she would show them they were wrong.
She would show them all.
- 1301 After Mithras, three days after Emperor Vainqueur’s self-coronation.
“KIA! KIA! Get your ass out here!”
Kia awoke from her slumber with a heavy headache, the bottle of wine she drank last night on the side of her king-sized bed. The morning sun bothered her through the windows, making her groan and draw the bedsheet to herself.
She heard her butler reason with the guest on the other side of the door. “Sir Nostredame, the Shining Knight does not wish to be bothered… she doesn't feel well...”
“I’m her teammate, I’ve seen her in the most humiliating positions imaginable. A bad morning is tame.”
Recognizing the man’s voice, Kia let out a frustrated moan. “Let the sucker in…”
The door opened with a kick, and a tall, charming dark elf with dark skin and short white hair stepped in. He wore shadowy blue and gold robes brimming with magical power, alongside a host of powerful artifacts, from rings to a silver diadem. His purple eyes set on her with heavy disapproval. “Kia, what the hell, it’s one in the afternoon!”
Her hands reached for the stuff laying below her bed. She grabbed her legendary sword Arondight, forged to kill the mightiest of dragons, and used it as a cane to stand out of bed. “What’s the matter…”
“Kia, my gods, are you drunk?” He closed the door behind before opening the window with telekinesis, letting fresh air inside.
“No, I just had… a little too much wine last night… gimme a sec…” She put a hand on her chest. “[Cure].”
The hangover ended with an aura of green light, and Kia could think properly again. “Better,” she said, standing straight and smirking at her old teammate, “Hi, Kevin.”
“It’s Nostredame!” her friend lambasted her. “How many times did I tell you to use my hero name?”
Kia remembered, but still teased him. Like many other Claimed, Kevin had chosen a new, fantasy-sounding name upon arriving in Outremonde. Since they were thick as thieves, he let her get away with it for the same reason she was comfortable letting him in her room while she only wore white lingerie.
Kia moved towards her bedroom’s two-meters high mirror, adjusting her hair. When the gods reincarnated her, they altered her appearance to the point she forgot her old one. Her new body in that strange world resembled the model Liya Kebede, with shoulder-long black hair, lustrous dark skin, and piercing eyes. She had lost some muscle and gained fat since she started living in the vineyard, but she still looked more like an amazon than a fragile flower.
Most lusted at her on sight, to the point of making her uncomfortable, but Kevin didn’t. That nerd only loved magic and math, to the point that he asked to become a dark elf because it would make his Intelligence growth better. “The butler told me you drank all the time,” Kevin scolded her. “I know we had epic, messy parties back in the day, but drinking alone isn’t like you.”
“I don’t have anything better to do,” Kia admitted.
Two years ago, two hundred experienced adventurers in the sixty level range and above fought King Balaur at the Golden Fields, Kia among them, in an epic battle for the continent’s future. Each of them had the best equipment, including artifacts, preparation time, and a well-oiled strategy.
By the time Kia landed the final blow, they were down to eleven.
But at long last, with their leader dead, the fomors fell into infighting, their horde scattering, and the stragglers easy picking for adventurers. While generals like Mag Mell successfully retreated to their homeland of Prydain, the war was over. Mortal life would endure.
Kia, as one of the greatest heroines of Gardemagne, was granted the title of Shining Knight and noble lands. Including a vineyard estate where she spent most of her free time nowadays. Kevin, meanwhile, had become the headmaster of Gardemagne’s royal academy and an advisor to the king.
And it bored her to death.
Kia had now reached beyond level sixty, and almost nothing could threaten her anymore. Well, some powerful monsters could, but after that legendary battle with King Balaur, everything felt like a let-down. Instead of going on epic quests, she spent her days making speeches or courted by nobles wishing to marry the Heroine of the Golden Fields. Even one of Gardemagne’s princes had gotten to it.
‘Back in the day,’ as Kevin said. Kia felt like these cranky old people ranting about the ‘good old times,’ and she hated it.
Her eyes trailed to her bright, green starmetal armor and shields standing in a corner. Maybe she could go back on the road as a solo hero, fighting the fomors in Prydain, or exploring the western continent?
“Do you want a drink?” Kia offered her friend, as he snapped his fingers, causing a table covered with paper to appear, alongside chairs.
“No thanks,” he said, sitting and inviting her to do the same. “I came for business, actually.”
He did? Kia was suddenly all ears since business usually involved the fomors or Brandon Maure. “The King finally decided to invade Ishfania?”
“Not yet, and we have a new fox in the hen house. A great red dragon appeared in the south and caused a lot of turmoil there. He has been identified as Vainqueur Knightsbane, an elder red wyrm who terrorized Midgard before it was destroyed by Balaur and then assimilated by Gardemagne. He was presumed dead during the Century War, but so far, reports and divinations agree that this is the real deal.”
An elder red wyrm. Like a fomor, one would need a party in the fifties to kill it. Kia could probably take it down solo, so bringing the entire party was overkill. “How dangerous?” she asked, her hopeful tone surprising her. “The name sounds familiar. I think I heard stories about him.”
“He’s pretty much the archetypal dragon in Outremonde, at least in the southern lands. He was considered the greatest calamity of the age, before King Balaur came along, and earned the Knightsbane nickname because he killed every hero who challenged him.”
“I figured. The king wants me to deal with it?” It would change her mind and distract her for a bit.
“Actually, it’s… it’s more complicated than that. I don’t know how to say it with a straight face but… He has a human partner, and they…” Kia frowned, as her friend struggled to find his words. He eventually gave her a short letter. “Just read.”
Kia proceeded to, and the more she read, the more confused she was. “Emperor Vainqueur Knightsbane? V&V adventurer company?”
“The dragon wants to be paid with lands and gold for destroying one of Maure’s generals, the lich Furibon.”
“What do you mean, the dragon wants to be paid?” She quickly figured it out. “Don’t tell me…”
“The adventurer guild recognized Vainqueur Knightsbane and his human partner as an adventurer company, plates included. With Furibon’s destruction, they should be upgraded to gold-rank, but after the Euskal fiasco, they will probably settle on the politically safer iron or bronze.”
The Euskal fiasco? What did she miss last night? “A dragon. A dragon adventurer.”
“With class levels.”
Dragons could get class levels? She thought they were like the fomors, soulless, and thus unable to access the system, even after being informed of its existence. “How did this happen? Start from the beginning.”
“The human partner is Victor Dalton. He is a Claimed of Dice, who ended up joining the Nightblades shortly after arriving in Outremonde. He took levels in the [Outlaw] class and had a short—”
“Dalton,” Kia interrupted him. “His family name is Dalton, and he started as an Outlaw?”
“Yes, he was predisposed for evil. Imagine if his name had been Dick Dalton.” Kia couldn’t help but chuckle. “Anyway, he worked for the Nightblades syndicate in Noblecoeur before leaving to become an adventurer. He was hired by the Marquise of Carabas through the Albain chapter of the adventurer guild to recover a rapier, which led him to Vainqueur’s lair. We do not know what happened there, but three things were certain afterward: Vainqueur returned, Dalton had become his accomplice, and they forced the local guild to declare them an official adventurer company.”
“He doesn’t control the dragon as far as I can tell, but my apprentice, whom I sent to investigate, told me he accessed a Monster Class called [Monster Squire]. I suspect he sold his soul to the dragon in exchange for power.” The archwizard presented her two piles of paper. “I have two radically different versions of the events that followed, both plausible and with nothing in between. I do not know what to make of them.”
“Tell me,” Kia asked. “The more information we have, the better we can deal with them.”
“The first version is mostly based on the testimony of the nobles and their retinues,” Kevin warned. “Dalton and Vainqueur first moved to Carabas to wreak ‘revenge’ on the marquise, burning her lands and threatening her into surrendering a tribute of gold and food. The marquise tried to have the dragon poisoned, but he shrugged it off, and Dalton blackmailed them for items.”
Well, that escalated quickly. Kia guessed that dragons and outlaws remained monsters, no matter what they called themselves.
“The two then occupied the town of Haudemer, on the west coast. Our spies tell us they sought to recover an artifact hidden by a Claimed who escaped Brandon Maure’s clutches, the Apple of Knowledge. After the duo devastated the countryside, recruiting savage monsters along the way, the Scorchers fought them over the artifact and were massacred. After the carnage, Dalton…” Her friend paused. “Do you really want me to give you the ugly details?”
Kia nodded, a dark look on her face.
“He… Dalton ordered one of the women to breed with him.”
Kia tightened her hold over her sword, thinking how she would castrate that criminal with it.
“Duchess Aelinor arrived with knights and crusaders to free Haudemer, but Vainqueur crushed them. Then, when she refused to pay him a tribute of gold, he ate the duchess alive. Dalton, who had already sold corpses to necromancers, began to raise monsters from the dead as undead slaves, and together they slew a dozen adventurer groups sent after them. They then moved to Murmurin, conquering it for themselves.”
So these two were a duo of villains, the likes of which Gardemagne hadn’t seen since the end of the war. A human criminal and a savage dragon, who somehow managed to draw the worst out of the other.
Kia knew these were bad news, and that she shouldn’t feel joy over it, but she once again brimmed at the call of a righteous quest. “What about the other version?”
“Well... I interrogated the local guild manager, especially about her experience with Victor, and she said: ‘he is an idiot, and I wish him to suffer for bringing that dragon to my guildhall, but he is no villain. Just an idiot.’ The Count of Provencal said the arson was the result of a monster-extermination request that the dragon interpreted a bit too zealously, and that Victor saved his life by covering up the poisoning incident. As for Haudemer, they left a mixed memory to the locals, who say they saved them from the Scorchers at the cost of unnecessary property damage.”
“But what about the woman Dalton forced himself on?” Kia asked, appalled. “What about the undead business? The duchess’ murder?”
“The victim of the breeding insists this was consensual and that, I quote, ‘eight out of ten, not the best I had, but I would gladly do it again.’ The undead deal was apparently a completely legal operation under the new Undead Labor Laws. While Dalton handled the paperwork, the dragon was the main pusher according to witnesses, for purely venal reasons. Finally, Dalton explained through letters that the duchess refused to pay Vainqueur for the Scorchers’ demise, and it escalated into a fight. Aelinor’s successor, Justine De Sade, officially recognized that version and didn’t press charges.”
Kia digested the news in silence. Indeed, there was little middle ground between the two versions. “So they are either fiendish villains or destructive idiots.”
“Show me a map of that ‘empire of Murmurin’.” Her friend showed a spot between Gardemagne and Ishfania’s western frontier, bordering the sea. He circled a small area, making Kia laugh. “They call that an empire? You can’t even fit Delaware inside!”
“What do you have against Delaware?” Kevin protested, since he came from there. “It’s a dragon, Kia. Common sense doesn’t apply to them. Remember that Black Wyrm in the swamps?”
Kia still shuddered at it. That dragon had abducted a dozen of noble ladies so it could ‘raise princesses in captivity.’ “Would that not help Gardemagne?” she asked her more politically-minded friend. “The dragon is right between the kingdom and Ishfania, and already declared war on Maure by taking over that area.”
“In theory it does help us, but a dragon with class levels is something to watch out for. Dragons warred with the fomors for control of Outremonde until the fairies bribed them with gold. So far that wyrm asked to be paid in return for services rendered, but imagine if he realizes he can bully towns into giving him gold? And while a controversial figure, Victor worked with the Nightblades. He’s a criminal.”
Kia pondered the problem. Her gut told her these two were closer to amoral mercenaries than dangerous calamities, but she couldn’t know before checking up first. “You said they claimed that region. They did it as an adventurer state?”
Her friend confirmed with a nod. Since Outremonde’s lands were more than sixty percent unexplored, monster-ruled wilderness, Gardemagne allowed adventurer companies to claim areas which they conquered. In theory, they worked as tributary states, but in practice, the company ruled their territory as its leaders saw fit. Gardemagne’s ancestor, the Mithraic Empire, started as one such state.
Eventually, the kingdom fully absorbed these areas by making adventurers official nobles, but no adventurer state ever had a dragon at its head. Especially one calling himself emperor. Rebellious adventurers were usually crushed, but they weren’t castle-destroying behemoths. “What does the King say about it?”
“His current stance is to ignore the dragon. Since duchess De Sade declined to press charges for her sister’s death, and the beast destroyed Furibon, King Roland froze the bounty on Vainqueur’s head. Better to let the wyrm play noble, he says, so long as he follows the guild’s procedures and limits his aggression to the kingdom’s enemies. Since everyone who picked a fight with Vainqueur died, and Murmurin is a monster-infested desert nobody wants, that seems reasonable.”
“But you don’t share his opinion.”
“I’m wary of letting power get to a dragon’s head since they are egomaniacs at best. Lucie already proposed to move to Murmurin to check on them, alongside a representative of the adventurer guild.” Kia knew that by that, he truly meant a long-term spy of the kingdom. “Since you are looking for excitement...”
“I could check up on them, and take them down if needed.”
Within an hour, Kia took her armor out of storage, and her gryphon out of his stable.